AQUAMAN Evolution: From Laughingstock to New 52 Rock Star

 

Aquaman may be one of DC's best-selling titles, but the character hasn't always been so high-profile.

Although the character has been around since 1941, Aquaman's revival in popularity has been pretty recent in modern-day comics. Before that, he was.... well... less than beloved by most comic fans.

"I've loved Aquaman since I was a kid watching the Superman/Aquaman Adventure Hour," DC writer Tony Bedard told Newsarama. "I just pretty much assumed back then that Aquaman was of the same stature as Superman.

 

"Flash forward a few years and I find out that to most comics readers, Aquaman is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Justice League," he said.

In fact, on American television, Aquaman has been ridiculed the last few years on shows like Saturday Night Live, Mad and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

So what made him well known enough to endure on mainstream TV, yet be the butt of every joke?

And how did he evolve in comic books during the last 70-plus years to become the hero he is today?

As DC is shining a spotlight on Aquaman with the Justice League/Aquaman crossover "Throne of Atlantis," Newsarama takes a look at why and how Aquaman has evolved and endured.

Finding What's Modern

Before he was literally and figuratively "resurrected" in the 2010-2011 series Brightest Day (the first step in his current resurgence in popularity), Aquaman struggled to find favor among fans, as writers tried new origins and drastic changes to make him more attractive to modern audiences.

"I think Aquaman's a character who hasn't historically sold that well, but he's an important character to DC. So he gets tinkered with a lot, as people try to find the perfect presentation," said writer Kurt Busiek, who did his own "tinkering" with the Aquaman mythos in 2006-2007 in Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis.

Keith Giffen, who worked on a late-'80s version of the character that also revamped his origin and look, said he thinks the efforts by DC writers to change the character can be traced to him coming across as a youth-targeted hero.

 

"Aquaman, in his early appearances, was definitely written for a wide-eyed, young audience," Giffen said. "People compare him to Marvel's Sub-Mariner, but they're very different characters. The Sub-Mariner has an anti-hero, edgy kind of attitude. But when Aquaman first appeared, he was riding around on seahorses, and it had a more childish air about it. I think that perception has stuck with him somewhat, and so people have this urge to make him more adult, or to change him to something different."

"I've read a lot of comics with Aquaman in them, and they really go for the throat when trying to make him cool, sometimes," Johns said. "And I think Aquaman is cool. I don't think you have to work that hard to make him cool.

"But what you do need to do is address why people don't think he's cool, and just accept that — hey, you're writing an Aquaman comic book," said Johns, whose current series hasn't shied away from the negative perception of the character.

 

Writer Bryan Q. Miller, part of the creative team behind TV's Smallville, helped define a version of the Aquaman character that was introduced to the show in 2005. And while the comic book version of Aquaman may have gone through a lot of changes in his 70 years, Miller said the character made sense on Smallville because there are parts of his story that even modern audiences can understand.

"What makes Aquaman Aquaman for me is environmental activist angle and the nobility angle," Miller said. "He's very Shakespearean, in a way. A king with a cause. An Old World sensibility in the modern age. It's very cool."

Artist David Finch, who helped establish the character's newest look when he was drawing covers for Brightest Day, agreed that one of the most compelling aspects of Aquaman is his regality.

 

"I didn't know what to expect from [Aquaman], and I know that he's never been as prominent a character as some, but he has so much regal power," Finch told Newsarama. "I can feel it when I'm drawing him. He just feels very intense to me."

Miller, who has also written comics like Batgirl, said Aquaman is a hero with a domain that's pretty impressive on its own, and it's what makes the character different from other DC heroes.

"Global warming and Roland Emmerich pending, 80 percent of the Earth is covered with water," Miller said. "Lots of people live their whole lives without ever seeing the ocean. Aquaman is in charge of all of it. And the world needs what he has to live. He's definitely a major player."

Tough Origins

Aquaman may have an enduring message and importance in the DCU, but he hasn't had an enduring origin. While Brightest Day and Aquaman have established that he's half-human and half-Atlantean, that story has changed a lot since the character first appeared as human Arthur Curry.

"Originally he was a human being, changed scientifically into a water-breather," Busiek explained. "Then they made him into half-human/half-Atlantean royalty, which is the classic, best-known version. And then we found out he was all Atlantean, which cut him off from having a human heritage, a connection to the surface world to go along with his connection to he ocean. And now they're going back to the one where he has a connection to both worlds, which I think is a good thing."

 

That "best-known" origin Busiek mentioned is the Silver Age Aquaman, who became king of Atlantis and also married an underwater queen named Mera. The 1950s and '60s introduced a slew of new characters to his mythos, and he became a member of the Justice League.

Blogger Rob Kelly, who created and maintains The Aquaman Shrine website, said the character's place in DC Comics history was assured when he was a founding member of the JLA, and his popularity grew when he showed up on the SuperFriends TV show in the 1970s and '80s.

But Kelly said the public's perception of the character also suffered during that time period, because Aquaman lacked definitive creative direction on his own — outside being part of that team.

"When his fellow JLAers — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Green Lantern — were building their rich histories in the 1970s and '80s in their solo books — histories today's creators use as soil to enrich their own stories starring those characters — Aquaman was moved from book to book, thanks to his solo title's cancellation in 1971," Kelly said. "That labeled him as an 'also ran,' a label which really stuck, something he's still struggling to overcome."

 

Busiek said that because fans identify Aquaman with the Justice League, he sometimes gets the negative side of fan opinion. "Out of water, his powers aren't terribly special — he's strong, but lots of superheroes are strong. And being able to communicate with fish is an easy ability to mock when it's being compared against Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash," Busiek said. "Aquaman's at a disadvantage, because he's got to go to a special environment in order to show off what's best and most distinctive about him.

"Under water, he's great," Busiek added. "And communicating with sea life is actually a terrific power in that setting. But outside, as a member of the JLA, mostly away from the water, his great powers are muted, and what stands out most is the weakness that he can't be away from water too long. So his best-known setting is a setting that emphasizes his negatives. You can write around it, but as hurdles go, it's a big one."

Giffen said that big hurdle ended up making Aquaman the butt of a lot of jokes from fans. "It felt a little ridiculous sometimes," Giffen said. "Every Justice League adventure had to have some way to have Aquaman get wet. You'd hear people say, 'We don't want to read about someone who talks to fish.'.... He doesn't get a lot of respect from people."

 

Yet Johns, who put Aquaman on his Justice League team, said doesn't let the fear of reader comparisons between Superman and Aquaman intimidate him. "Aquaman is so powerful and competent and smart," he said. "He's tough. Other people might look at the Justice League and say, 'look at Superman and Batman go,' or 'What the hell's Aquaman doing there? We're in downtown Philadelphia!' But he's going to be able to hold his own alongside them."

Vast Mythology

Giffen said that although DC editors and writers struggled to make Aquaman more "modern," most writers recognize the character's real potential lies in his rich supporting cast and mythology. "There are still hundreds of untold Aquaman stories," he said. "After outer space, the ocean floor is one of the great frontiers of unexplored territory. There are a lot of things you can do with a character like that. But I think you have to get away from just having him call a whale when he's in trouble."

 

The Aquaman revamp Giffen helped orchestrate in the late 1980s and '90s tapped into a deeper, richer mythology for the character, renaming him Orin and making him a full Atlantean. But some of the changes made were a little more drastic, and Giffen questions their wisdom. "When I did the Aquaman mini-series with Bob Fleming and Curt Swan — and I pretty much only did that mini-series so I could work with Curt Swan — we tried to add a Tarzan touch, where he was raised by sharks or orcas or something like that, trying to give him more of an edge. But I think we might have done more damage than good."

Later in the '90s, the character got another revamp from writer Peter David, whose Aquaman series was the longest running for the character. The series got rid of Aquaman's clean-cut look, and in issue #2, he lost his left hand.

But it was Busiek's run in 2006-2007 that returned the character to his original, classic origin and mythology, going about it in a way that was tough for readers to accept. Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis saw a new, younger character appear as Aquaman, replacing the older version completely, yet in a way that brought the classic parts of the character back.

 

"The [Aquaman] series [before Busiek came on board] was selling very badly, and had been canceled. Dan DiDio wanted to keep it going, to get the numbers guys to change their minds, so he wanted something very striking and different," Busiek said.

The comic was eventually canceled anyway, and readers' tepid response to the new, young version of Aquaman paved the way for the older character's triumphant return in the pages of 2010's Blackest Night.

Relaunch Revival

Since then, Johns has been rebuilding the mythology of Aquaman, having enough success with the character in Brightest Day to justify launching a new Aquaman series with DC's New 52 reboot last year.

 

"I've always really been fascinated with the character," Johns told Newsarama. "I think there's a great world to explore with that character, with the ocean and the mythology that comes with that. And creating new things for that world, and expanding it, was compelling to me as a writer. I thought it was a great challenge."

Johns has also embraced the "humorous" perception of Aquaman, making it part of his series. "Aquaman is this guy who, on land, he's kind of laughed at," the writer said. "But in the ocean, he's supposed to be the king of this huge underwater society, so there's a weird juxtaposition between those two roles. And he prefers to be on land, and his job is to protect the land from sea and the sea from land. So he's literally caught in the middle of all these things.

"I think everyone [can] relate to Aquaman. I think he's very, very human, because of all that," he said. "But he's also admirable because he does step up and take care of business, and he doesn't let what anyone says stop him. He lets it roll right off his back like water."

Kelly, a blogger whose fansite has cheered Johns' portrayal of Aquaman, said he hopes DC continues to make Aquaman a central part of the DCU.

"I hope they try and highlight what makes Aquaman unique in the DCU — his connection to the environment, an issue so much on people's minds nowadays," Kelly said. "I think of all of DC's characters, Aquaman is best positioned to be a sort of ambassador to those real world concerns, something that makes him timeless yet current. I also hope they'll get away from the 'heavy is the head that wears the crown' sad sack routine which has dogged him for decades. Geoff Johns has done an amazing job making Mera a top-tier character; let's see her and Arthur have some fun being superheroes. Mera being so cool is bound to make some people reassess Aquaman. After all, he must be something special if Mera is his devoted partner."

 

 

Busiek agreed that the new direction under Johns seems to be working, and Aquaman appears to be a major DC player again.

"Geoff's really enthusiastic about him, and that's generally a real good sign for characters at DC," he said. "Look what happened with the JSA, Flash and Green Lantern. Could be Aquaman and his fans are headed for some new glory days."

"Having seen Geoff bring the shine back to Green Lantern and the Flash, I'm happy that he's making Aquaman an A-lister like he ought to be," Bedard said. " I'm totally enjoying Aquaman's new rock star status."

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